Humans are thinking beings, and it’s impossible to separate our feelings and our actions from our thoughts. Thoughts, feelings and actions are connected in a cycle, often called the Cognitive Triangle: how we think affects how we feel and act.
Our thoughts can often be compared to a helium balloon on a string. As long as we have a firm grip on the string, the balloon (our thoughts) stays under our control. But if the string slips out of our hand, the balloon will soar and we will lose control of it. This is very similar to how we lose control of our thoughts. Sometimes our thoughts, like the balloon, get stopped by the ceiling and don’t spin too wildly out of control. However, imagine what happens if we let the balloon go outside where the sky is the limit. Your thoughts, just like the balloon, will be completely out of control.
We’ve all experienced times when we start out with a seemingly harmless thought like, “I’m stuck in traffic”. Suddenly, you let go of the string and your positive thoughts start to drift out of control.
“I’m going to be late for work . . .”
“I won’t make the meeting on time. . .”
Just as the balloon drifts away, your thoughts continue to spiral out of control…
“The boss will be angry with me . . .”
“I won’t be able to give my presentation…I’ll never have this opportunity again. . .”
“I’ll lose my job…we won’t able to pay our bills…we’ll lose our house . . .”
Sometimes even a happy thought can take the same path. “The lab tests came back and the biopsy results are negative!” can quickly turn into . . .
“Maybe the lab made a mistake . . .”
“Maybe the results were positive and the test did not pick it up . . .”
“If they don’t find the cancer it could get worse. By the time the error is found, it could be too late.”
These are examples of cognitive distortions, or thinking errors, that can start up our stress response just as quickly as a growling Rottweiler bounding in our direction. Many people have similar negative thoughts that play through their heads like a scratchy CD skipping over and over in an endless loop. Sometimes the negative thoughts flip on automatically when faced with certain people or certain situations that are stressful.
The voice in your head may be yours or it could be someone else in your life, like an overly critical parent, a partner, a sibling or even a friend. This inner critic can make us miserable and stressed out. Perhaps some of these negative thoughts sound familiar:
“I look awful.”
“I can’t do this.”
“I’m such a screw up.”
“I’m such a loser.”
“Nobody likes me.”
The good news is that if we don’t like the way things are going in our life, we can change them by going to the source of the problem…OUR THOUGHTS. We can learn to take control of our thoughts instead of our thoughts taking control of us. It can be as easy as keeping hold of the balloon string if we have the skills.
A string of highly negative thoughts may contribute to depression or anxiety, and these thoughts may be based on exaggerations or things that are not real. Your thoughts can be examined and deflated. Once you learn the skills of cognitive restructuring (acknowledging and changing negative thoughts) you can take control of your thoughts and take control of your happiness. Allow us to help you deflate the thinking errors and put them in your pocket. Life Ideals can help you to create some tools for your thought restructuring toolbox.
Adapted from Harvard Medical School’s Special Health Report on Stress Control.
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